Saturday, March 04, 2006

Anonymous Romans

On a very brief visit to Rome, I managed to slip into the Museo Nazionale Romano. Aside from its many famous works (two very good copies of the Discus Thrower, Crouching Venus, Niobe, many more), it has tens, probably hundreds, of busts of mostly anonymous subjects. The sort of thing, you might think, to fill out the galleries and rooms and justify the wage bill. And yet I don't think I've seen anything that gives such a strong sensation of life lived as these nameless faces do.

My eye is not trained enough to see whatever there is of convention in these portraits. What I do see are the features of people I have known, the mouths, noses and glances of men and women that order, cook, nurture ambitions for themselves and their children, have undergone disappointments and small triumphs and want to assert themselves against the general oblivion. They're like family snapshots to be kept on the wall to elicit the occasional memory from descendents running towards the same finishing line.

This sense of knowable character is not absent even in some of the busts that carry a great name. That of Vespasian has none of the optimate, the patrician about it with its bull neck and broad jovial face - this is a no-nonsense man and you can well believe it to be the face of the emperor who muttered as death approached, "Oh dear, I must be turning into a god!". The bust of Livia, wife of Augustus, is another thing altogether. Small, pointed in nose and chin, scissor-thin lips; yet the face is a little puffy and sports a maiden-aunt quif - this one kills with her knitting needles and passes on. There's a slightly more benevolent version in the same room, but, forewarned, I didn't try to hold her gaze.

The satisfaction of finding confirmation of character in the historical figures reinforces the familiarity of the anonymous ones. They, too, must be just as knowable, and the game of building lives and circumstances around them is even more enjoyable. In these workaday snapshots, you're not distracted by the serene beauty of Greek line and movement; you not forced to just stand back and humbly gaze up and admire. No. You look at them, as Churchill said pigs looked at us, eye to eye, as an equal.

I wish I could give you some links, or an image or two. However, the museum seems not to have its own site, and images of the busts are lacking even in the catalogue.

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